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The Sanctity of the Commons was published in The Lissome Magazine, Issue N°3, 2022.

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Interview with David Bollier by Dörte de Jesus, artworks by Rachel Garrard.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

– Buckminster Fuller

Today’s world is largely governed by an alliance of predatory markets and increasingly dysfunctional nation-states, following “a shared vision of technological progress, corporate dominance, and ever-expanding economic growth and consumption.” As veils have been lifting in the past years, we can see more clearly now that it is a vision built on delusion – it is neither ecologically sustainable nor does it keep its promise of sharing wealth and participation fairly and equally. Markets have been allowed to run rampant more or less since the 1980s, and the riches of the world and subsequent political power have been accumulating in fewer and fewer hands. While we are racing towards climate collapse, we feel burnt out in a world that so often appears to lack purpose, kinship and nourishment for our yearning souls. Yet, deep down, we know that another world is possible, and that it will be built bottom-up from the grassroots. According to the author, activist, long-standing commons expert and Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, David Bollier, “That’s what a robust commons movement around the world is doing. It is pioneering new forms of production, more open and accountable forms of governance, innovative technologies and cultures, and healthy, appealing ways to live. It is a quiet revolution – self-organized, diversified, and socially minded.”

So let’s dive into the commons and its historical relevance, and explore what we can learn from the commons movements if we want to transform the world.

Dörte de Jesus: How would you explain the commons? Could you give me a definition that you find the most compelling?

David Bollier: There is no single definition of the commons because, like markets, it manifests in countless ways, always reflecting its context of geography, history, culture and so forth. That said, the commons is a social system of shared intention that is designed to steward care-wealth (something that is cared for instead of a commodity) in fair, collaborative ways.

Notice that this description does not focus on “commons as an unowned resource”, as economists and politicians generally do. A commons is not a resource. It’s a social system – a coherent community with shared goals whose members work together to take care of shared wealth that matters to them. I prefer not to use the word “resource” because that implies a dead commodity whose value is defined by markets, as opposed to something that is alive about which commoners deeply care. Their care-wealth is often part of their worldview and identity.  

To give some examples: commons can be found in such diverse phenomena as open-source software and wikis, community management of forests and coastal fisheries, agroecology and local food systems, artistic communities and care work collectives, cohousing and open access scholarly journals, alternative currencies and community land trusts.  

The list can go on and on. And that’s partly the point: a commons can arise whenever people with shared purpose decide they wish to manage a body of shared wealth for their mutual benefit. It works by collectively developing shared responsibilities and nourishing social practices and an ethos of inclusion and fairness.

In a world dominated by capitalist norms and state power, it’s hard for a normal person to learn about contemporary commons because the concept is usually seen as remote history with little relevance. But commons are as old and durable as humanity itself. For more, see a short description of the commons, “The Commons, Short & Sweet,” which I’ve posted on my blog.

Dörte: What would you say is the historical significance of the commons? What would be early historical examples of commons-based systems, and when would you say the commons had some of their high points throughout history?

David: The history of the commons is an instructive topic because it reveals – in stark, unvarnished ways – so many of the deep political struggles that persist today. Much of this history is fragmentary or marginalized, however, because the lens of modern capitalism is the default field of vision. As a result, commons are often cast as archaic, bizarre relics of a distant past … or as misbegotten attempts to cling to primitive, premodern traditions … or as grossly inefficient, impractical approaches that tend to devolve into “tragedies of the commons”.

In truth, the history of commons reveals that the plight of the poor and dispossessed is not a natural state of affairs. It is one largely created and imposed by the wealthy and powerful. While the myths of “progress” are often invoked to suggest the inevitability of the present, capitalist order, there are in fact many ingenious, humane and democratic ways to meet people’s needs. Consulting history often discloses the roads taken and rejected. We can glimpse the inflection points at which novel paths were forged, if barely (Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest); the visionary paths that might have been (the Diggers and Levellers movements); and the monstrous paths of history that have been marginalized (the devastation of capitalist accumulation; the criminalization of commoning).

Magna Carta – and its near-forgotten companion document, the Charter of the Forest, focused on commoners’ rights – was particularly important because it was the first formal declaration of human rights. The documents were a form of peace treaty between King John and barons, commons, and others engaged in a civil war objecting to the monarchy’s seizure of larger and larger plots of forest lands in the 13th century. This was a big deal for commoners because they depended on the forest for nearly everything – wood for their fires and houses, pastures for sheep and cattle, wild game, mushrooms, hazelnuts, berries, dandelion leaves, countless medicinal herbs.

All of this history is politically instructive about the propensity of the sovereign to take resources for themselves at the expense of commoners. Today, it’s the market/state system that routinely appropriates our common wealth. The Charter of the Forest guaranteed commoners legal access to things essential to their survival (the forest); recognized their right to establish their own rules for managing commons; and declared that commoners had civil liberties and protections against the sovereign’s arbitrary power.

With the rise of the modern nation-state and capitalism, many of these rights have been pared back or eliminated notwithstanding the precedents of Magna Carta. Following the precedent of the Charter of the Forest, the late Italian jurist and politician Stefano Rodotà in the early 2000s tried to develop modern-day equivalents of commoners’ rights for citizens of the European Union – a struggle that continues.  

If there has been a “high point” for commoning, you could point to most of human history. Commoning has arguably been the default social system for human beings for millennia, as evolutionary scientists and biologists have shown. While much is made of the power of market capitalism, its norms amount to a blip in the longer sweep of the human species.

Dörte: In 1968, an influential essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin was published in the journal Science. Its basic concept that humans, when left to their own devices, compete with one another for resources until the resources run out, has since become a basic principle of mainstream economics taught in universities worldwide, and a cautionary tale about the impossibility of successful and responsible collective action. However, even before Hardin’s essay was published, the findings of the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven his assumptions wrong. While Hardin concluded that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through repressive means of either total privatization or total government control, Ostrom observed through her empirical fieldwork that community-based systems can thrive when they follow clearly defined boundaries and rules. Her landmark publication Governing the Commons was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Science a few decades later. What would you say are the basic design principles that can create effective and durable commons, according to Elinor Ostrom and also to your own long-standing experience?

David: Based on her empirical studies of scores of commons around the world – mostly ones involving farmland, water, forests, fisheries and other natural resources – Ostrom famously identified eight basic design principles for commons in her 1990 book Governing the Commons. Working within the standard economic framework, she pointed out that cooperation can be quite effective in managing shared wealth. Ostrom’s approach is a significant departure from the standard economic narrative, which holds that collectively managed wealth invariably ends up being destroyed through overuse – the “tragedy of the commons” story.  

Ostrom’s design principles for commons include: clearly defined boundaries around a resource so that commoners can know what is theirs; a congruence between the rules for appropriation and local conditions; the ability of individuals affected by operational rules to modify them; the ability of participants to monitor the use of the resources; the use of “graduated sanctions” for anyone who violates the rules (so that penalties start out light and become more severe); conflict-resolution mechanisms; and basic rights to organize one’s commons without government interference.

In our book Free, Fair and Alive, Silke Helfrich and I build on Ostrom’s work, but with a new conceptual twist. Ostrom worked within an economic tradition of seeing commons as resources and property, with a focus on individuals as the primary, rational agents. By contrast, we wanted to understand the commons as a holistic social system based on a wider set of human norms. Silke and I, therefore, focus on the interpersonal and ethical dimensions of commoning as a dynamic, evolving social process. Relationships are the primary phenomenon, not just resources. So we looked at a lot of “patterns of commoning” (as we call them) – the social behaviours, practices and ethical norms that are used again and again to address recurring problems, such as how to set limits on using natural wealth, how to allocate finite quantities fairly, how to ensure participation and legitimacy in decisionmaking, and so on.  

Dörte: In your book Think Like A Commoner, you dedicate several chapters to the enclosures of the commons and start by talking about the English enclosure movement (as a land grab by the king and aristocracy) that took place at various times in medieval history and through the 19th century. I recently read Caliban and the Witch by the Italian-American scholar and activist Silvia Federici, which draws parallels between the enclosures of the commons, the witch hunts, and colonialism that all happened at that time, and laid the foundations for the newly evolving capitalist system. How would you describe what happened to the working classes, women, and colonized countries and people in terms of the distribution of wealth, property, power and labour, and in terms of the dominant worldview, and what would you say are the repercussions that we experience today?

David: Historians of capitalism are not eager to dive into the history of enclosures, which is the forcible seizure of common assets to commodify and privatize what was once shared by all. Capitalism likes to portray its theft of land, water, trees, crops and so forth as “progress.” It celebrates how things that were once managed “inefficiently” are now fed into markets to yield financial wealth, technological progress, and economic growth.

But enclosure involves a profound dispossession of people. It not only steals their traditional, socially embedded wealth; it dissolves their cultures and identities. This is what happened in the English enclosure movement that took place between the 16th and 19th centuries. Villagers were evicted from their common pastures, forests and waterways, and forced to migrate into cities to become wage slaves and paupers in the new industrial order. (Read the novel Harvest by British author Jim Crace for a great fictional depiction of what enclosure surely felt like!)  

The people hardest hit by enclosures are those who have depended on the commons for meeting their subsistence needs, outside of the market. So as commons are enclosed, it is women, people of colour, and others in the “informal economy” who suffer the most. As Silvia Federici documents in her book, women were often punished as “witches” for insisting on using common forests and lands after the wealthy had enclosed them. The capitalist order shatters the social relationships that people once had in commons, imposing instead hierarchies and racialized and gendered identities.

Dörte: Many people believe that enclosures are relics of the past. Could you paint a picture of where and how enclosures of nature and land take place globally in today’s world and what their worrisome impacts are?

David: Enclosure is not just a theme in British history. It is a universal dynamic of capitalism. Capitalism is a powerful, implacable engine of enclosure, which is to say an extractive force for monetizing and privatizing common wealth and socially engineering people as atomistic individuals without history or culture. I regard enclosures as one of the great unacknowledged scourges of our time. But of course, to mainstream economics and politics, enclosures are often not seen as negative things. They are portrayed as positive – “development”, “innovation”, “growth”, “progress”.  

Yet we have enough real-world examples over the past 50 years to show that the marketization of the Earth, infrastructures and social relationships is ridiculously harmful and simply not sustainable. It’s destroying the planet and our communities. Climate collapse is simply the biggest, most salient example of the harm that enclosure inflicts.

We can see enclosures in the current land grabs throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, in which hedge funds collude with governments to privatize lands that traditional communities have used for centuries. Enclosure is driving the patenting of genes and plants – “biopiracy” – that folk communities of users have stewarded for generations. Enclosure is seen in overreaching copyright and trademark laws that are converting snippets of music, common words and images, and even smells and colours into private property.

The common denominator of enclosures is that people are deprived of the shared wealth on which they depend, and through which they might otherwise maintain their independence from the market/state system. Dispossession is no longer confined to colonial peasants or native peoples. The arrival of Airbnb can raise rents and hollow out neighbourhoods in major global cities such as Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Preserving the commons is important for two reasons. It is a way to defend against the enclosures driven by capital, corporations and their ideological allies in the state. And it is a way to preserve one’s sovereignty in creating a different sort of (nonmarket) system of peer governance and provisioning.

Dörte: In response to the term “tragedy of the commons”, you coined the term “tragedy of the market”. What do you see as the core tragedy of the market and what does it entail?

David: I’ve alluded to this problem in my earlier answers. The tragedy of the market is its inability to restrain itself. It is not commoners who are out of control with their individual appetites and desire for material gain. It is capitalists! Investors, corporations and growth-obsessed politicians portray the market as a vector of freedom, and in a sense, it does enable their freedom, or rather, their anti-social licentiousness. The free market does not self-regulate, as the market fundamentalists aver. The 2008 financial crisis was perhaps the most dramatic example of this. But of course, the same dynamic plays out in nearly all major corporate markets.

So let’s just move beyond the bogus “tragedy of the commons” smear, and own up to the deep structural pathologies of market capitalism. Its routine externalization of costs onto our communities, ecosystems and future generations is not a bug; it’s a primary feature.

Dörte: You call the notion of private property “a kind of social fiction – an agreed-upon system for allocating people’s rights to use a resource or exclude access to it” and point out that private property rights did not arise naturally but are a result of conquest. In the words of Rousseau: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all and the earth itself to nobody.” Where do you see the perils of private and corporate ownership? And how do you think the notion of stewardship (rather than ownership) could help us rethink economics and create social systems that foster social and environmental wellbeing?

David: Let’s just clarify that the conflation of “private property” and “corporate property” can be cleverly deceptive. Most personal property that we own – what we might also call “private property” – is quite different from property owned by a business or corporation. Our cars and houses are not usually deployed to generate profit, re-engineer landscapes, control people’s work lives and alter ecosystems and genes.

The problem is that property, as deployed by business in “free markets”, is profoundly destructive of nature. It also aggravates social and economic inequality. This is a structural, built-in feature of property rights, which let us recall, is a political and legal invention that privileges owners with certain entitlements. Property is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It requires state action and a whole civic apparatus to enact.

So we need to think more deeply about the politics of property rights. In Free, Fair and Alive, Silke and I argue for new forms of “relationalized property” that see property as more than a mere commodity defined by a market price. A property becomes “relationalized” when our personal and social energies are folded into it – as when we participate in an open-source software community or belong to a cooperative that involves work commitments or allow seeds to be shared and bred (unlike proprietary seeds).

My friend Peter Barnes, in his recent book Ours: The Case for Universal Property, argues that we need to create a new class of property to protect such things as groundwater, the atmosphere, public lands and minerals, so that corporate users of those resources can be made to pay – and the funds can be channels into a universal trust that kicks off dividends for everyone in that jurisdiction.  

In short: we need to open our minds to new forms of property and new legal structures to enable commoning, which eschews transactional money relationships for more enduring social ones.

Dörte: Could you explain to me how commons-based systems in the areas of medicine and food, or more broadly speaking, knowledge and culture, could be threatened by patents and copyright laws?

David: Commons of medicinal knowledge are often threatened by Big Pharma, which wants to use patent law to privatize naturally occurring substances or knowledge. For example, a pharmaceutical company once tried to patent the medicinal neem plant in India. This provoked some enterprising commoners who helped create the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, now an official government agency, to catalogue traditional practices so that there would be a body of “prior art” to legally invalidate any patent claims.  

Similarly, in 2010, a group of Indian yogis and scientists began a massive effort to document more than 900 yoga postures, complete with a video catalogue of 250 of the most popular ones. Like the library of traditional knowledge, this inventory of “prior art” was needed to thwart the potential patenting of yoga postures.

Biopiracy remains a major concern of many commoners in the Global South, where people want to prevent biotech companies from seizing their traditional knowledge, privatizing ownership of it through patents, and then forcing people to buy the same resources back via markets.

Culture is often threatened by copyright laws in the same way. The law gives major corporate players monopoly rights over creative works and information, preventing competition and follow-on innovation. The length of copyright terms in the US is the author’s lifetime plus 70 years – ostensibly because that period of “protection” is needed to incentivize an author to create. Yet in most cases, the chief beneficiaries are not authors, but corporations and the estates of dead authors, who will surely not be creating more works.

Dörte: Fashion is one of the few creative industries in which it is notoriously difficult to claim copyright protection. I noticed that one area of research that has been booming in recent years is the development of new material innovations, often promoted and praised as more sustainable solutions. Do you think that these newly developed man-made fabrics might be especially in vogue with investors because they can be patented?

David: Such innovations are surely being pursued because they can be patented, thereby thwarting competition. It’s such a farce that they are promoted as sustainable because patents are impeding any follow-on innovation that might make the fabrics cheaper, better and more widely used. The most sustainable approaches are open source in nature, not proprietary.

Fashion is one of the most creatively robust industries around precisely because its output cannot be copyrighted or patented (generally speaking). A fashion house can own a trademark in its name and certain products, but it generally cannot own the creative design itself. With a colleague Laurie Racine, I explored this in a 2006 conference and report, “Ready to Share: Fashion and the Ownership of Creativity”. It’s a shame that there continue to be schemers and corporatists trying to sabotage the foundational structures that enable fashion to flourish as an open-source field of creativity.

Dörte: Commons systems are far more developed on the internet than in any other sphere. In how far would you say that open source systems and Creative Commons are especially well equipped to nurture innovation and creativity? And what would you say distinguishes online social sharing platforms such as Instagram and Facebook from commons-based systems?

David: I’ve referred to the power of open source in fostering commons-based creativity and solutions, but I haven’t specifically mentioned Creative Commons. These are a series of freely usable public licenses that copyright holders can apply to their works to signal that they can be reused in stipulated ways without permission or payment. Since the introduction of these licenses by the nonprofit group Creative Commons in 2002, their use has exploded worldwide, helping to create a vast pool of legally shareable text, music, photography, video and other works. The licenses have been especially important to scientists and scholars, who can authorize their works to be freely shared as part of a vast academic commons.  

Instagram, Facebook and other such corporate social media websites may invite social sharing, but that doesn’t make them commons. That’s because those companies own the platform and structure the types of interactions that are possible – and the motive in every case is to maximize revenues from advertisers and data companies. User communities are just peons on the corporate plantation. The logical outcome of corporate ownership of social media can be seen in Facebook’s steady parade of abuses – in privileging extremist rants and disinformation, for example, because they enhance “user engagement” and thus advertising revenue.

There are some noteworthy platforms for commoning, but it’s usually difficult for them to scale up because proprietary platforms already dominate the social space. However, there are a variety of “platform cooperatives” that are emerging as competitors in areas such as ride-hailing, food delivery and stock photography.

Dörte: According to the German philosopher and biologist Andreas Weber the concept of the commons allows us to reimagine the universe and our role in it. How do you think that the commons can foster a different way of seeing and being, and possibly help us deal with the looming climate and social crises of our times?

David: Weber wrote a brilliant essay, “Reality as Commons”, in an anthology I co-edited, Patterns of Commoning, that explains how the biophysical systems of life in effect function as commons. They are alive. They exist within a dense web of relationships of both competition and cooperation, but at their core, a symbiosis. There is a whole parade of respected biologists and evolutionary scientists who understand the world along these lines: Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock, E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, Martin Nowak, Stephan Harding, and others.

The problem is that scientific rationalism and economic thinking – two dominant forces of our time – have trouble understanding life in this way. They are so intent on objectifying life to predict, control and monetize it – forests as timber, plants as commodity crops – that they lose sight of life as a dense, complex web of subjective, adaptive agents. Andreas Weber has said that science and economics are “unwilling to acknowledge creative aliveness as an ontological foundation of reality”.

The beauty of the commons is that it helps us make an OntoShift, or ontological shift, to this perspective. By participating in a commons, we learn to see the world differently. We need not get stuck in the market identities of “consumer”, “producer”, or “investor”. We can have the experiences and language to see ourselves in a larger perspective, as humans in a living world of the more-than-human.  

To assist you with participating in the commons, I have recently published The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking: Tools for the Transitions Ahead. It is inspired by the format and style of The Whole Earth Catalog of the early 1970s in providing dozens of profiles of people, projects, books, organizations, networks and movements that are working on the commons in one way or another. I have found that once the commoner perspective clicks in, there’s no going back!